Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
I was an avid reader as a child – losing myself in a book was one of my favourite pastimes – I once spent the whole time when I should have been revising for exams reading Lord of the Rings. (This is not a recommendation, by the way – I had to retake them). Different people get their stories in different ways – Films, TV series, podcasts or talking books. Stories are deeply woven into our lives and culture. Those who find reading a chore but love stories, should take solace in the fact that stories were around long before books. They were the main way in which knowledge, life lessons and culture were passed on from one generation to the next.
But why (or how) are stories relevant to us, in our work? We may think that as designers, drawings are our main tool in expressing what we mean. But the truth is that the first time we meet a client, we don’t have any drawings to show them (other than of other people’s projects, which may not be relevant). I use stories from almost the first moment I meet a client. Initially, these are stories with a point – they are a shared experience, or perhaps they tell them something about me, or something I have learnt that is relevant to them. But as we talk about the project, ‘mini-stories’ are a wonderful way of getting clients to visualise themselves in a scene that you have in your head: “This would be a great spot for a bench – it would catch the last of the sunlight. A perfect place to sip a gin and tonic, looking at the sunset!”
This is when stories cross over into dreaming. Stay with me here, I’m not completely losing it! Most designers can’t properly verbalise how a design process really works. They know what they do, of course, but where do the ideas actually come from? As designers, we make a lot of use of the right side of our brain. The wheels turn on their own, often while we are doing something else – walking, driving or daydreaming – and then, the germ of an idea appears. The ability to nurture this process and cross-fertilise between different experiences is critical to creativity. And the ability to be able to describe that to a client is also vitally important – partly because they often don’t really understand drawings, especially plans. The more we can link these drawings to things that they can visualise, the better.
Most classic stories follow incredibly consistent ‘arcs’. There is the rags to riches pattern, or its reverse: the fall from grace story. Then there is the U-shaped curve – fall and recovery. Hollywood’s favourite is the rise-fall-rise pattern. I use this story arc to understand where my clients are on their journey through the project.
When we first meet, they are at a low. As we talk and our designs progress, they become excited with the possibilities – they’re on the upward curve. This continues through concept and scheme design to top of the first peak. Then reality kicks in, usually with the first serious discussion on costs. When the construction team starts to rip out their old garden and make a right old mess, they slide steeply down the curve. Around about the bottom is what we describe as ‘hard landscape fatigue’ – much of the structure is in, but they are beginning to question whether they have made the right decisions. Then the soft landscape begins to go in and the curve starts to tick up. When we depart, they are moving fast up the curve. The top of the second peak should be higher than the first as the planting matures and the design comes into its own. It is important to understand where clients are on this story arc so we can offer appropriate support and encouragement at the right time.
It’s worth going back to see them a year or so later to check in and see the smiles on their faces, maybe share a gin and tonic on that bench in the early evening sun, and perhaps swap a few stories…
This piece was first published as a point of view article in the Garden Design Journal in 2023